The story told by “Trial by Fire” is true, and awful. In 1992, a Texas man named Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of the arson-related triple homicide of his three very young daughters, who died in a home fire that he escaped. Willingham, a troubled man with a criminal record and violent tendencies (though never against his children), insisted that he didn’t set the fire, and early forensic evidence wasn’t conclusive; nonetheless, he was sent to death row.
Edward Zwick’s movie, ultimately a cry against the death penalty, is restrained in its early moments; the children’s death isn’t depicted, just horrific afterimages like a burned pacifier and a charred baby walker. And the filming of Death Row is harrowing, with the ceilings seeming painfully low, as if they’re pushing down. But this material was perhaps better suited to a documentary (there was one in 2011: “Incendiary: The Willingham Case”) than a feature film.
Jack O’Connell, as Willingham, does his best to breathe life into a character who mostly speaks in pronouncements; Laura Dern, as a Houston woman who sympathizes with him and tries to help, brings a lovely, feathery kindness to her role, but can’t quite emerge as anything other than an uncomplicated saint.
It’s a haunting, heartbreaking story, told by a movie that never quite makes a case for itself to exist.
★★ “Trial by Fire,” with Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade. Directed by Edward Zwick, from a screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on a New Yorker magazine article by David Grann and on the letters of Cameron Willingham. 127 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity. Opens May 17 at multiple theaters.